4 Biggest Takeaways from the Baltimore Ravens OTAs
There is an aura of defiance surrounding the Baltimore Ravens as they proceed through OTAs, as a prideful roster is out to prove that the calamitous 2013 season was the exception rather than the norm. That, in and of itself, is one of the biggest takeaways from OTAs so far, and it bodes well for a team that usually thrives when it’s cast in the underdog role and plays with a chip on its shoulder. But what other tidbits can we glean from OTAs?
Talking heads make a living overreacting to “news” items and limited sample sizes—that’s not the goal here. I’m emphasizing from the beginning that what we’re seeing in OTAs should not alter your expectations for the 2014 season. Instead, these takeaways should merely serve as a good (or bad) starting point in the process toward building a contender.
Keeping that in mind, here are some of the positive signs from the Ravens’ first practices as a team.
So Far, so Good for the Offensive Line
Given that OTAs are basically touch football, it’s hard to assess the performance of the “big uglies” up front—a group of men who are paid to get their hands on people and inflict more punishment than is physically possible in touch football.
But there are a number of things to be excited about so far. The right tackle position is still in flux—and I’m not sold that the best option is currently on the roster—but the other four positions are looking promising.
We know what we’re getting in Eugene Monroe and Marshal Yanda (now fully healthy) at left tackle and right guard respectively. They were both very good for the second half of 2013, and there are no reasons to expect a dip in performance.
The O-line should also get a tremendous boost from the upgrades made at center and left guard.
Jeremy Zuttah will be an improvement over Gino Gradkowski—it would be hard not to be—and he’s impressed his head coach so far, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
Jeremy Zuttah is doing a great job. He's smart, really smart, really mature, goes about his business in a mature way. I'm just very impressed with how smart he is. He's very quick. He's about 305, 306 pounds. He looks good physically in there, but he can move.
Zuttah’s experience and intelligence should serve him well as the anchor of the O-line, but the more exciting addition to the O-line is a familiar face: Kelechi Osemele.
Osemele is fully healthy after undergoing season-ending back surgery, and Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com reports that he has been physically dominant in OTAs:
Offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele was the most impressive player on the field. There is no contact in offseason practices, but Osemele jumped out because he showed intensity in every drill. Even coach John Harbaugh pointed out how Osemele was running from drill to drill. After missing the last nine games with a back injury, Osemele seemed like he was letting everyone know that he's at full strength.
Osemele’s strong show of good health is the most important takeaway from OTAs so far because he has the talent and strength to be a Pro Bowl guard. His presence will be huge for the ground game.
C.J. Mosley Is a Stud
So this one may be an overreaction to some “football” that isn’t really football, but C.J. Mosley has been spectacular during his tenure in Baltimore.
Physically, he’s been impressive with his speed, mobility and coverage skills, but his understanding of the defense make him seem like a seasoned veteran.
Ravens Vice President for Public Relations Kevin Byrne commented on his early impressions of the Alabama product:
No.1 choice C.J. Mosley, lining up at inside linebacker, looks like he has been a Raven for a lot longer than a few weeks. He has the countenance of a long-time veteran. He calls defensive signals with confidence. ... And, he can run. He's going to be fun to watch over the years.
A number of coaches and players have commented on Mosley’s early grasp on the defense, which bodes well for his hopes of winning a starting job before the season begins.
Matt Elam Is Building on a Solid Rookie Season
Head coach John Harbaugh went out of his way repeatedly at the end of the season to highlight Matt Elam’s solid play last season. Elam didn’t set the world on fire in his rookie campaign, but Harbaugh was quick to point out that it’s much more important to be solid first as an NFL safety.
But Elam was still disappointed with his play, and he looks ready to take the next step in his development.
Big things are expected anyway because he should make the transition to strong safety—his natural position—but Lardarius Webb went out of his way to praise Elam’s improved knowledge of the defense and his leadership, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:
The person who is just really growing is Matt Elam. From last year to this year, I see a big jump with his leadership, with him controlling the back end and just being that safety, controlling the calls. I just really like where I see him going.
I’m seeing him just taking control—just taking control with communicating with the linebackers and with me. Last year, I was a veteran, so I guess he didn’t communicate with me like he wanted to. Now, if he says it, it’s what he says—we play what he says. It’s just how he speaks; he speaks with confidence now, and you can just tell.
Elam himself commented on his new approach:
I approached the offseason to get better and improve in communication and my footwork, just to make myself better in my second year. I feel like taking on that role now that James is gone. They expect more from me because I’ve been in the system for a year and it’s my second year. I need to be that guy on the back end that lines guys up and takes control.
I feel more confident because I’ve been in it for a year, I started 15 games, and I know what I’m doing now. I can play faster and make calls easier. The coaches have confidence in me now, so that’s my role now to be a leader and make those calls.
This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, Elam is a very talented player and a gifted athlete. He has all the tools to be a game-changing strong safety, and the progress is a terrific sign for the future of the Ravens defense.
Perhaps more importantly, his maturity will make it easier for the coaching staff to slot rookie Terrence Brooks into the starting lineup—assuming he earns the job, of course.
Elam’s leadership will really help Brooks make the adjustment to the NFL and allow the Ravens to cover up some of Brooks’ inexperience.
Running Back Depth Won’t Be an Issue This Season
If we have to blame one positional group for the shoddy running attack last year, my pick would be the O-line. Nevertheless, injuries to the running backs certainly didn’t help matters, especially with the lack of depth at the position on the 2013 roster.
That won’t be an issue this season.
Next on the depth chart is Bernard Pierce, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery.
But even after those two, the Ravens brought in two more capable rushers in Justin Forsett and fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro.
Forsett has been taking the majority of the first-team reps—probably a sign to Rice and Taliaferro that their off-field actions won’t be tolerated—and has thrived, according to ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley:
The running back who drew the most attention was Justin Forsett. The veteran journeyman is extremely small, but extremely fast. He displayed good hands in catching passes out of the backfield and turned upfield in a hurry.
And while Taliaferro has made headlines for the wrong reasons, he has also looked good running the ball displaying patience, vision and strength.
Baltimore will need that depth with a probable suspension looming for Rice, but the Ravens have a solid platoon of rushers with players that bring different traits and skills to the table.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter: